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H - 160 : Did Hadrian Steal our Itinerary?

Updated: Feb 19

Hadrian is one of the best known Roman Emperors. His legacy is present in so many places, one wonders how he achieved so much during just 21 years. His most famous monuments are the Castel Sant' Angelo (where he was buried) and the Imperial Palace in Tivoli outside Rome. During his reign, Hadrian's Wall in England was built. A bit later the Limes followed, the wooden palisade from the Main to the Danube, and strategically placed Hadrianopolis (Edirne in Turkey). Not everybody knows that he also remade the Pantheon and Athens as we know them today.

Bronze Bust of Hadrian from a military camp in Israel

Hadrian was truly one of the big builders of the Roman Empire. So much so that one would assume that his mega projects tied him in Rome where he could enjoy his Tivoli Gardens. But Hadrian had too much energy to stay put. For 12 of his 21 years in power he travelled. There is no province he did not visit. He was truly interested in how the Empire worked and what it would take to make it perpetual.

Hadrian's Travels through his Empire from 117 AD to 134 AD

100 years before Hadrian, his predecessor Augustus consolidated Rome and integrated the wealthy eastern provinces. He gave it the shape that survived for 500 years. Augustus' policy made the Mediterranean an internal Roman sea (Mare Nostrum), opened it for long-distance trade and rushed in the Pax Augusta. He also established trade links with India and Asia. Under Augustus, Rome's finances tripled. The new tax revenues permanently financed the Roman Legions - the base of his power. But his expeditions into Germany, to Yemen and Nubia showed that Augustus remained an expansionist emperor who only stopped when forced to do so.

Hadrian's Mausoleum was so well built, it became the Castel Sant' Angelo for the Popes

Hadrian was a different Emperor. Having served in the Roman Army in Germany, Dacia, on the Black Sea and on the border to Parthia (Persia), he was a professional soldier who understood the cost of war. Most of the time, Hadrian was stationed in regions which never covered the cost of occupation. Protecting the border to Germania absorbed six legions with no tax revenue. The six legions Trajan deployed to conquer Mesopotamia had little to show for either. The agricultural wealth of Mesopotamia could not easily be brought to the Mediterranean and Rome did not need the Persian Gulf to trade with India. They already had access via the Red Sea. To make the Empire last forever, Hadrian had to balance revenue and expenditure. He saw himself as the second Augustus who would lay the foundations for permanent Roman rule.

Seldom talked about, Hadrian greatly enlarged the Aqueduct that supplied Caesarea

As a seasoned military commander, Hadrian understood the need for first hand information. What worked and what did not? He wanted to make the right decisions. He did not want to rely on staff reports. He thus "invited" his court to travel with him through the empire. It must have been a magnificent sight to see the imperial household on the move. Sadly, I could not find out how many people Hadrian brought along. But I am sure his entourage counted several thousand people. On one of his trips, in 131 AD, he followed the itinerary which we sail this summer. Of course it is the other way round :-). We follow his footsteps.

Hadrian's Journey from Egypt to Ephesus in 131 AD

Less than a year after Trajan's death, Hadrian pulled his legions out of Mesopotamia and made the Euphrates the new border. From the Black Sea to today's Jordan, he built a series of desert fortifications to keep Parthian and Arab raiders at bay. He also upgraded the border towns like Palmyra and Gerasa to make them torch bearers of the Empire. Hadrian did the same in England and Germany. His wall sealed off the unruly Scots; the Limes kept the German tribes in check. He also pulled out of eastern Dacia which absorbed too many of his forces. Central Dacia though, where the gold and silver mines were located, he kept garrisoned. Where there is money, there were Romans.

Hadrian's Arch in Gerasa, today's Jordan was one of Hadrian's important Border Towns

Hadrian's project was not limited to military matters alone. He knew perfectly well that the Roman Empire could only survive as a civilisation that attracted and assimilated other cultures. For the Western part, he opted for Latin roots. The restoration of the Pantheon and the building of his Mausoleum where he planed to "reside" once deified were two sides of the same coin. His massive building projects signalled the superiority of Rome. Pantheon and Mausoleum were there to create a "wow" effect to demonstrate the high achievements of Roman civilisation.

The Pantheon was rebuilt by Hadrian. He attributed it to Agrippa, Augustus' closest friend

In the Hellenistic part, where 80% of his tax revenue were generated, he chose Hellenism. His choice was in line with Caesar's thinking who once contemplated to move Rome's capital to Troy or Marc Anthony who considered Alexandria as a more suitable capital for the Mediteranean Empire. Hadrian opted for Athens which he rebuilt in his style.

The Remains of Hadrian's Forum just below the Acropolis

Athens got a new temple for Zeus (the largest in town), a new theatre and a big library. The town should become again a centre of culture and philosophy, supporting Rome's "natural claim" to power Hadrian's Athen was much larger than Athens in 400 BC. When you stroll through the town today, it is instantly visible. The Roman ruins are outside the perimeter of classical Athens.

Hadrian arriving in Palmyra in 130 AD

Hadrian's project worked. For the next 100 years, the Roman Empire enjoyed great stability. It partially worked due to his iron fist. 60 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, Hadrian had to deal with another Jewish rebellion which he triggered for no real cause. The rebellion failed and cost the lives of 500'000 Jews. Romes most Hellenistic Emperor had shown the ugly face of Rome. Five years after the rebellion, Jewish people were a minority in their own lands. They again had to escape abroad. Hadrian was willing to respect Roman citizens and provide for them to get their support. But it had to be at his terms. There was no place for non-Roman cultures.

Hadrian's inner Sanctum in his Villa in Tivoli - the Palace is larger than all of Pompeii

On his trip from Alexandria to Ephesus in 131 AD, the route we follow this summer, Hadrian must have seen the hundreds of commercial ships which plowed the waves to bring eastern wealth to Rome. We do not know in which harbours he stopped but am sure the vibrancy of the eastern economy impressed him. This is something he wanted to preserve for eternity. A Roman Empire that lasted forever.

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